Back in early March, Baltimore synth pop band Future Islands played its new single, “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. For most bands, a Letterman spot is a routine part of the promotion cycle. But thanks to the charismatic singing and facial expressions, and jaw-droppingly great, GIF-ready dance moves of Future Islands’ kinetic frontman Samuel T. Herring, everyone — including Letterman — was blown away.
Living in D.C. from 2005-2012, I got a chance to see Future Islands several times as they were coming up — including a Tiny Desk Concert performance I shot for NPR Music, still one of the biggest bass amps I’ve seen crammed into that cramped office space. So for fans like me — Future Islands’ not-so-sudden “overnight success” felt, instead, like a well-deserved triumph for a hard-working band finally getting noticed in a big way.
It also felt like a resurgent moment of edge and relevance for Letterman and his show, especially in this overstuffed and highly competitive environment where most (younger) eyes are trained elsewhere on the dial (er, Hulu). And while Future Islands is just the most recent act to ricochet to a new level after playing the talk-show circuit, let’s be honest: this joyfully meme-able video is the most I had heard anyone in my circles drop reference to Letterman in some time. And now that Letterman has announced he’s stepping down and retiring in 2015 — to be replaced by Stephen Colbert — that performance will stand out as one of the show’s all-time great music acts.
All of this was on my mind when I stepped into a crowded but giant warehouse space near the waterfront in Greenpoint to see Future Islands. I had not seen the band since I moved to New York, let alone since they kinda blew up. The show was some weird free sponsored event put on by Vans — at their so-called House Of Vans, a sort of event space-meets-skate park-meets-actual warehouse, filled out with free cheap booze and food trucks outside. It was an odd shaped room — many people were standing awkwardly and painfully on the skate ramps — and even odder scene-y vibe, to be honest.
Yet as Future Islands ran through songs from its fantastic 2014 album, Singles, as well as some older favorites from On The Water, you could feel the room connect and come together. There’s something so unifying and unpretentious in the way Herring sings — and windmills and gyrates and slinks and fist pumps and grooves — on stage. It’s super melodramatic, sure, but also, impossibly earnest, heartfelt and real.
The big moment for most, of course, was the single that made them TV stars, and that absolutely was a joy to hear live, with a crowd. But the real moment for me was “A Song For Our Grandfathers” — a ruminative and deeply personal song I keep returning to after that show. As those dreamy synths filled the air, as Herring croons the line “I feel safe,” I felt something akin to pride.
Future Islands is loosely something of a local band for people in D.C. and Baltimore, and while I’ve sorta known about and liked for many years, it was stunning to see them in that moment — playing to more people than I’ve ever seen them play to before combined. It was clear to me finally that Future Islands had arrived in a way that you didn’t worry about what would come next or begrudge the way they got there. In fact, I’ve never been more excited to see what’s next.
Channeling a happier Beach House, or perhaps an even-sadder Best Coast, the music of Alvvays presents a familiar juxtaposition: The Toronto band’s songs marry upbeat, lovely, occasionally messy surf-pop melodies with bittersweet words. Throughout Alvvays’ superb self-titled debut, Molly Rankin unfurls line after emotionally open line, painting a portrait of romantic discontent in the matters of love and relationships. In “Adult Diversion” and “Archie, Marry Me,” Rankin perfectly encapsulates the conflict between youthful restlessness and a desire to settle down.
Then, in “Party Police,” she articulates the confusion that comes with trying to decode the thoughts of someone you love: “Walking through the trees, I never really know what’s on your mind / Is it ever me, or just someone you’ve left behind?” In those moments, Alvvays reveals something more resigned and heartsick than those crisp guitars and singable choruses would have you believe.
Music has always been an outlet for emotional escape for artists. And considering singer and guitarist Domenic Palermo’s past is riddled with tragedy, violence and despair that almost undid him, it’s no wonder his band, Nothing, inspires such blissful release. With its phenomenal debut, Guilty Of Everything, Palermo — along with guitarist Brandon Setta and the rest of the Philadelphia band — exorcises those ghosts with metal-meets-shoegaze songs like “Dig,” “Get Well,” or “Endlessly” that feel equally heavy and elusive.
And where one might find “Hymn To The Pillory”’s feedbacking squalor and pulverizing drums to be melancholy and oppressive, I hear an almost romantic beauty in those cascading waves of guitar static and dreamy voices. It’s the kind of loud and all-encompassing music that I want to get lost inside, and maybe find a little serenity in the sweeping noise.
There’s a delightful playfulness in the words and music of Juan Wauters. Over three albums and a handful of singles, the Uruguayan-born singer for the Queens-based band The Beets wrote wistful and wryly observed songs set to a primitively played folk-meets-garage punk. Now, Wauters is striking out on his own with his solo debut, N.A.P. — North American Poetry, a record that feels just as raw and D.I.Y. in spirit as those Beets albums, but trades some of that fun, sloppy attitude for sweet folk tunes and an exposed voice.
Throughout N.A.P., Wauters sings primarily in English with snippets of Spanish casually tossed in, the way it might conversationally with a bilingual friend. Yet, like he did with the occasional Beets song, Wauters sings entirely in Spanish on “Ay Ay Ay” and the simple, slack-stringed acoustic track “Escucho Mucho.”
Wauters moved to New York in 2002 to live and work in a factory with his father in order to save enough to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. To cope with the initial isolation he felt, he turned to music. And with “Escucho Mucho” (or “I hear a lot”) Wauters addresses that anger and feeling of alienation as he overhears people around him. And even if you cannot understand what he’s singing without the aid of Google — or a very patient friend willing to help translate — based on his clever rhyme schemes alone, it’s clear Wauters’ songwriting is as idiosyncratic and introspective as ever.
When it comes to music of Washington D.C., Go-Go and early punk are probably the first sounds that come to mind. Still, GEMS — a new project from Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts of Birdlips — is one of several young bands helping to shift that perception (See also: Priests). The duo’s lovely music is haunting and hypnotic with crisp Beach House-like guitar melodies, throbbing synth pads and the Pitts’ dreamy vocals. And while it doesn’t yet have a full-length record out, the band’s EP, Medusa holds a lot of promise thanks to striking pop songs like “Pegusus” and “Sinking Stone.” This is a new band already confident in its live show, and bound to fill bigger spaces soon.
The ideal way to witness Perfect Pussy is in a cramped room mobbed with fans, collectively losing their minds to the ecstatic, pile-driving fury. On stage, the Syracuse hardcore band’s set is somehow both the shortest and longest 15 minutes of unforgettable punk music you’ll see right now; an assured barrage of scorching guitars, feedback squall — and the powerful vocal assault of frontwoman Meredith Graves, who sings with an unfiltered and ecstatic rage.
Last year, the reputation of Perfect Pussy’s self-affirming live shows reached fever pitch after a string of now-storied early performances in DIY spaces — including the now-shuttered 285 Kent. Now, following its self-released, four-song demo tape, I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling, and a flurry of buzz following showcases during CMJ and SXSW, Perfect Pussy attempts to document that jolting sound on its first true LP, Say Yes To Love.
Blasting through an unrelenting eight songs and 23 minutes, Graves and the rest of Perfect Pussy — Ray McAndrew (guitar), Garrett Koloski (drums), Greg Ambler (bass), and Shaun Sutkus (keyboards) — sing with messy urgency about deeply personal topics, even when the words are largely indecipherable. From its themes of social injustice and censorship, gender politics and female empowerment, and battling the societal expectations of love and happiness, down to the name of the the band itself, Perfect Pussy is a confrontational and unapologetic band delving into some big ideas and stigmas. Yet, even amid the visceral noise and sludge, Perfect Pussy’s fearless vibrancy and honest emotion always shines through. It’s a sight to behold.
After finally catching one of the band’s recent New York shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg, it’s clear that hype is justified.
CHVRCHES’ dense electronic dance songs are mostly built around serrated computerized beats, layered synthesizers and chirping sampled voices created by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, all of which propel Lauren Mayberry’s cute, yet commanding vocals that flutter and soars above the mix like embers in the night air. And with clean and buyoant pop hooks, CHVRCHES crafts the kind of memorable choruses on songs like “The Mother We Share” and “Gun” that can fill the club, and later, find yourself singing along to when no one is looking.
Yes, CHVRCHES is a young band. But throughout an incredibly polished 12-song set — where they debuted mostly new songs from the upcoming album that few, if anyone in the crowd had even heard, and then played a perfectly chosen Prince cover as an encore — CHVRCHES showed a confidence, both musically and in stage presence that’s rare at this stage in any group’s arc.
CHVRCHES is a promising band that seems to have arrived fully-formed, which makes it all the more enticing to watch where it will go next.
There’s no way else to put it: Lucius makes some of the most delightful music you’ll hear all year. Fronted by the soulful soaring voices of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, and a battery of thundering percussion, this young Brooklyn quintet’s magnetic pop gems like “Don’t Just Sit There” and “Turn It Around” are instantly happy-making, but with just the right touch of bittersweet sentiment underneath.
While Exitmusic’s transporting debut Passage ruminates on brooding despair and frayed emotions, there’s a seductive romanticism to the heartache. In songs like “The Night” and the “Storms,” the married duo — Aleska Palladino and Devon Church — creates haunting, swirling soundscapes as they sing of loneliness, love, and regret. Still, amidst the cascading waterfalls of noise and Church’s cyclone of guitar distortion, there’s a soaring, rumbling beauty to these melodies as they flitter like burning embers in the night sky. And yet, all this is but a powerful, dreamy backdrop for Palladino’s alluring voice as it swells from quivering to full-throated thunder as in the epic chorus in “The Modern Age.” Exitmusic may be melodramatic and dark, but there’s no denying that the catharsis of Passage is as intense as any album you will hear in 2012.
For the hundreds of bands, music industry insiders, college radio programmers, DJs, and music fans who descend upon New York City every Fall, October means one thing: It’s time for the CMJ Music Marathon. Every year, a staggering number of showcases and parties, not to mention all the shows that normally are happening in the city, all with great music well worth checking out.
The appeal in a festival like CMJ is discovering relatively unknown baby bands and up-and-coming artists with a ton of upside. Some could become that “next big thing” that we’ll hopefully be talking about for the next year. And some may simply fade away.
Like Austin, Texas’ annual South By Southwest Music Conference, CMJ can feel logistically overwhelming when deciding where to go, and when (and how) to get there. But unlike SXSW and it’s relatively closely plotted venues, CMJ is far more spread out across Manhattan and Brooklyn — and so you may find yourself hoofing it all across town and over the river. So, (like SXSW,) you’ve got make choices and tightly map out your schedule if you hope to catch multiple things in a night.
My first CMJ was a total nightmare in some ways, mostly because I was expecting the ease of SXSW in terms of getting to venues, getting inside the venues, and seeing a ton of music back to back to back. Instead, I had to be more targeted, deciding on the one venue I wanted to camp out at and trust the showcase would present a lot of great options. Overall, I still saw a great deal of my favorite bands, and a lot of new discoveries.
Some highlights: Flying Lotus, Death Grips and Buke & Gase at NPR Music’s showcase; Telekinesis featuring Superchunk guitarist and Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan and Fred Armisen (of SNL and Portlandia fame) on bass! And a Brooklyn Vegan day party let me see a bunch of young bands — Hunters, Sinkane, Eternal Summers — and catch a packed but tiny show from R&B superstar on the rise Miguel.
BUKE & GASE @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Some bands claim to be DIY, but Buke & Gase truly embody it. The experimental prog-punk duo is named for the Frankenstein instruments they use: Arone Dyer plays a tricked-out bass ukulele through an impressive array of foot pedals. Aron Sanchez plays a hybrid guitar-bass through two homemade amp speakers — one for the bass strings, one for the guitar strings. As if that wasn’t enough, both members also simultaneously bang and stomp on a kick drum or wrap their feet with shakers and a “toe-bourine.” On paper, this could risk sounding like a gimmick, but the intricate riffs and bottom-heavy clanking rhythms Buke & Gase creates capture the imagination like few indie bands right now.
On the band’s debut Riposte, and its brand new EP, Function Falls, Buke & Gase expertly envelops Dyer’s chanting vocals with a big, souped-up mess of distortion, and fuzzy melodies that turn sharp corners into unexpected places. But this is also what makes the duo so exceptional to see live. In this NPR Music and Soundcheck co-sponsored concert — recorded live Wednesday at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City during the week of the CMJ Music Marathon — Buke & Gase kicked things off with the hypnotic, aggressive “Hiccup,” delivering the perfect fiery jumpstart to the night’s lineup.
DEATH GRIPS @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Sometimes you walk out of a show unclear what you just saw. This appeared to be the case for many in attendance for Death Grips’ stunningly pummeling set at New York’s (le) Poisson Rouge during the NPR Music/Soundcheck showcase during the CMJ Music Marathon. From the California group’s The Money Store — which has been among the year’s best hip hop records — or the recently self-leaked follow up, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, Death Grips is all about challenging the listener with its boundary-pushing music.
On stage, Death Grips’ delivers a visceral assault on the senses thanks to deep, gut-rattling bass, serrated beats and samples and the brutal, stick-breaking drumming of Zach Hill. But even amid the caustic deconstructed grooves, the blinding strobe lights and visuals on dual monitors behind the group, it’s MC Ride who commands all the attention. Performing shirtless, the muscular and heavily tattooed MC is such a powerful frontman on stage, you cannot take your eyes off him as he flails and shouts with an imposing, unrelenting flow.
After the set, many in the crowd looked equally traumatized and totally blown away with huge grins, knowing they just saw something completely unlike anything they’d ever witnessed. Whether or not it’s “your thing,” that’s always the sign of a great show from a singular artist.
TELEKINESIS @ Mercury Lounge
“I’d like to thank Merge for getting me off my couch.” — Michael Benjamin Lerner, Telekinesis
At one point or another, we’ve all read about an extraordinary concert in some book, or in Rolling Stone, on Pitchfork, or just on social media and thought “Damn, I wish I was there.” It doesn’t make much sense fretting about missing out if Band X played its entire album front-to-back or Band Y played a surprise show at two in the morning. That’s life, right? Can’t be there for everything. But it is music geek human nature to feel the slightest twinge of regret.
Still, every once in awhile, if you go to enough shows, you luck into seeing something special that will make others seethe in nerd jealousy. For me, last night’s Telekinesis set — at Merge Record’s CMJ showcase at New York’s Mercury Lounge — was one of those times.
And it all started because I couldn’t get into the crammed-to-capacity Sub Pop showcase at Knitting Factory. Instead of waiting around in a line going nowhere, I sucked it up and hoofed it by L train and F train to see if I could catch one of my favorite bands play a few of my favorite songs.
When I walked in, I saw Fred Armisen milling about in the back during the end of Eleanor Friedberger’s set. Known to most from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, I chalked it up to being a New York celebrity sighting — and him being a music fan. But soon, as Michael Benjamin Lerner — Telekinesis’ singer-songwriter and drummer, took the stage, I noticed Armisen pulling a Hofner “Beatle” bass out of its case. Whoa. Then, I noticed Mac McCaughan setting up stompboxes on the other side of the stage. McCaughan, guitarist and singer of Superchunk, and Merge Records co-founder, had played a solo set earlier that night, and obviously stuck around to lend a hand.
It was clear the room was in for a treat. I personally kinda lost my shit.
As Lerner explained near the end of set, he had not played a live show in a really long time, and was prodded by Merge to get off the couch, and fly here to New York for CMJ. But Lerner didn’t have a new working band yet — hell, most of his new songs weren’t really even finished yet. But instead of doing what he described as a “lame acoustic set,” he dropped a few emails to McCaughan and Armisen to see if they were interested in joining him for a few songs. Not only did they agree, they worked up an entire set of Telekinesis’ songs just for this night. No rehearsals either, just a bunch of scattered sheets of paper with the chord progressions mapped out.
They then proceeded to unleash a loose, exuberant set of some Lerner’s best songs (“Tokyo”, “Car Crash”) and even a new song from an album due out next April. Telekinesis’ real skill is in crafting perfect, bouncy power pop songs brimming with lilting guitar melodies and pounding drums and vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along to. Lerner is one of the best out there creating indie pop melodies — and honestly it’s a bit baffling why he’s not huge yet. Hopefully with a new record coming next spring, he’ll reach more people.
Yet, as one might expect, there were a few awkward moments for a band that had never really played together. McCaughan and Lerner at one point realized they were playing two different (though admittedly similar sounding) songs — “Foreign Room” and “Coast Of Carolina.” Lerner joked that he just had a realization that two songs he wrote have nearly identical chord progressions. Other times, they missed a few cues or played a missed note, or were just not always locked in like a more fully practiced working band.
But really, no one seemed to care in the slightest: many in the crowd were just having a blast witnessing something special and rare — flubs and all. That raw energy and loose, jokey feeling carried through with many fans singing along to Telekinesis’ impossibly catchy choruses. It was just damn impressive and a boatload of fun. I still cannot believe I was there to see it.